August 20, 2020
By Elena Bruess
Circle of Blue
When Farhad Ahma returned to his native country last year on a work trip, his first thought was of his small daughter back home. The air around him was so thick with pollution, he couldn’t imagine she would survive the climate in this region of northeastern Syria. Ahma himself struggled to breathe almost as soon as he arrived, nauseated by the heavy smell within a couple hours. He was born and raised nearby, in a city called Qamishli, but he had lived in Berlin for some time now. Returning was a shock to his system.
The pollution’s birthplace is some 62 miles east from where Ahma stood. Amid a pastoral setting — villages nestled neatly in farmland, gushing rivers, sweeping mountains — rises the grimy machinery of fossil fuel extraction. Lakes of crude oil rigid as cement pock the landscape. Hundreds of makeshift refineries poke above the weeds, expelling clouds of burnt waste into the air. A putrid, sickly smell hangs overhead. Black oil seeps between the cracks and down the rivers, settling into the land.
It has been decades since the oil fields in northeastern Syria began poisoning land and water. Production took off in the late 1960s, and before the Syrian civil war, the area produced an estimated 110,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Now, nearly a decade after the war began, oil production may be closer to 60,000 barrels a day – if even that. The conflict also took its toll on the oil industry’s infrastructure, leaving behind dilapidated storage facilities, broken pipelines, and creaky refineries. It is a landscape of polluted air, soil, and water, an environmental disaster that falls hardest on residents of nearby villages.
“It’s literally rivers of oil flowing through a really beautiful landscape and in the distance you see all the smoke fumes from all the local refineries, which gives it some kind of dystopian feel to it,” Wim Zwijnenburg told Circle of Blue. “There used to be thousands of [refineries] throughout the region until they shut down due to protest. Now there are roughly 300 or 400 left.”
It has been decades since the oil fields in northeastern Syria began poisoning land and water.
Zwijnenburg, a researcher focused on the environmental burdens of conflict, works for the Dutch peace organization PAX. In June, the organization, along with its local partner PÊL-Civil Waves, published a report analyzing oil pollution in northeastern Syria. The report highlighted the explosion of a corroded pipeline in March. As spotted on satellite imagery, leaking oil flowed from the pipeline through farm fields, then contaminated rivers, and oozed into the tiny village of Kharab Abu Ghalib.
Oil floats on the river near the Gir Zero facility. Photo © Abdullah Mohammed/PAX
Like other communities in the area, Kharab Abu Ghalib is used to oil pollution. Villagers have dealt with pollutants from an oil storage facility called Gir Zero even before the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011. The Syrian government had fixed the leak, but it began again after the conflict and pushed pollutants onto fields during heavy rains.
There is only one major professional refinery in the region, along with a few smaller professional and semi-professional ones. The rest are set up by locals where the crude oil is heated in unstable drum barrels. Villagers like those in Kharab Abu Ghalib often work in refineries because profits from agriculture are so low. Working conditions are deplorable, Zwijnenburg said. There is no gear, no protective suits or masks. Workers’ faces and arms are coated in thick, black oil smog.
“In one location where I visited, 14- or 15-year-old boys would be working, cleaning up oil tanks and such,” Zwijnenburg said. “There were incidents, people being exposed day in and day out to the smoke. People had crutches or wounds, which would get infected by the oil waste. Limbs were going numb. There were a lot of respiratory problems.”
Pollution follows workers home too. Crude oil and waste are tossed from Gir Zero into a nearby creek, which flows southward on the Wadi Rumaila toward over 30 villages. The river eventually becomes as black as the oil itself, so polluted that locals have begun calling it the “River of Death.”
Tea Blacker Than the Oil
Bashir al-Majdal, a school teacher from Al-Dardara, explained to PAX that his village used to be considered the area’s most beautiful and that farmers would irrigate wheat using nearby rivers. But now they avoid the rivers due to industrial waste. The village’s drinking water well was only 164 yards from the polluted river. Once tests proved the water was contaminated, the oil company dug another well further away. Yet, al-Majdal admitted the water still had a noticeably sour taste.
The river and groundwater are primary water sources for communities that are not connected to a piped water system. Those who can afford it will buy water from cities or towns, others will move to find fresh groundwater. But many have no option but to stay and risk the contamination.
Crude oil and refinery waste contain chemicals and heavy metals that are known to be toxic or carcinogenic when inhaled or consumed. In Al-Dardara, al-Majdal told PAX many villagers suffered from health problems, from cancer to skin diseases.
“In these areas, tea is the favorite drink, everyone is drinking tea, but it’s very important for the people what the tea looks like before you drink it,” Farhad Ahma said. After he had landed in Syria, Ahma began researching the oil pollution and interviewing residents with his colleagues at PÊL-Civil Waves. “The villagers were making jokes that the tea is blacker than the oil itself. It’s not drinkable, but you don’t have any other chance to get a glass of tea.”
PÊL-Civil Waves, the Berlin-based organization that partnered with PAX for the June study, focuses on sustainable peace and equitable development for youth, women, and society in Syria. The organization has several locations in Syria and among other projects, the team conducted numerous interviews on the ground with those living with oil pollution.
“In some villages, they have oil lakes in different sizes. Some small, some bigger,” Ahma continued. “The people don’t have the capacity to control their animals. So the animals are trying to find food and a lot of them are reaching those oil lakes and drinking from them. Even the grass around those lakes are so affected that eating it will kill them in one to two weeks.”
Sheep lay near the polluted water and grass. Photo © Abdullah Mohammed/PAX
PÊL-Civil Waves funded one village to build walls around their three lakes. It will not fix the environment, Ahma said. But it will make the area a bit safer for children and animals.
In the past couple years, massive flooding has polluted the grass even further. In 2018 and 2019, the oil-contaminated rivers overflowed onto the land around the area of Tal Hamis, seeping into fields and leaving oil behind. An analysis released by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in April this year reported that 115,00 acres of land in northeastern Syria flooded in 2019 and the pollution put water, sanitation, and hygiene services at risk.
“The farmers are losing their ground, their animals are dying on a daily basis, the water is not drinkable” Ahma emphasized. “There’s no reason for the people to keep living in these areas. [The people] like their villages and their homes, but it becomes a question of their own life and the life of their children.”
Water has been used as a weapon more frequently in the past decade.
In the village of Tal Mashan, one family spoke about their miscarriages. They felt that the losses were connected to the pollution and if they could move from the area, they would immediately.
Those who can afford to leave usually head to the cities in the region such as Al-Hasakah and Qamishli. A few will make it to Iraq or Kurdistan. No one has enough money to afford their way to Europe, according to Ahma.
Leaving is not only difficult financially. It is also a loss of place. Many families have lived in their villages for generations. They were born there, and their parents’ and grandparents’ graves are close by. They fought for their land against ISIS, and claimed it as their own again under the region’s Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. The decision to leave is one of the most difficult, and being forced to do it is a violence against the dignity of the people, Ahma said. The villagers know that when they leave, no one will take care of their home. It will feel forgotten. But they hope they can have a better life nearby.
Damaged Water Systems
Those who head to the cities will have their own struggle for fresh water.
Since the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria in October 2019, the Allouk pumping water station in the town of Ras al-Ain has been operated by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. The station provides water to 460,000 people in Al-Hasakah, including three camps for displaced people. The water has been shut off frequently, according to the Human Rights Watch, an organization that has been keeping a close eye on the situation. Local officials say the interruptions are meant to put pressure on the Northeast’s Autonomous Administration to provide electricity to Turkish-controlled areas. Turkey stated the shutoffs are caused by the lack of electricity, though humanitarian workers on the ground note this does not seem to be the case.
The shutoffs have stripped the villages of any water imports as well.
“So to sum it up, there’s the pollution of the surface water, which is impacting the agricultural areas, the lower term impact of pollution on the groundwater levels for villages located near the rivers,” Zwijnenburg said. “And now there’s the larger issue of water being used as a negotiation tactic, as a weapon.”
Water has been used as a weapon more frequently in the past decade. The Pacific Institute, a U.S.-based research group that monitors water conflicts, has noted more than a dozen instances in Syria in the last decade where water has been used as a weapon.
A farmer with his animals near the Gir Zero facility on Rmeilan oil fields. Photo © Abdullah Mohammed/PAX
A oil lake. Photo © Abdullah Mohammed/PAX
These water struggles have been exacerbated this year by the Covid-19 pandemic. Those without access to water, sanitation, and hygiene have a greater risk of contracting the respiratory virus. An estimated 7.6 million people in Syria have an acute need for these services, including those surrounded by oil pollution in the Northeast.
The closure of the Iraqi and Syrian border is preventing most humanitarian aid — medical equipment and essential hygiene and sanitation products — from entering the region. The UN Security Council urged lifting the border ban in June, but the resolution was blocked by both Russia and China. The United Nations cannot provide aid to the region since the Autonomous Administration is not officially recognized by the agency.
“All the hospitals in the area, with more than 4 million inhabitants, only have the capacity to offer intensive medical services to around 30 people if they are infected by the Covid-19 Virus,” Ahma said.
Currently, the country has just over 1,800 cases of Covid-19, but Ahma is worried if the region gets hit harder by the virus, there won’t be any way to contain it. The area doesn’t have enough test kits either, he said.
In the village of Kharab Abu Ghalib, after the pipeline explosion, one resident explained to a local reporter that they are told to wash their hands and their houses due to the pandemic, but streets are more dangerous than the virus itself. The oil can cause thousands of diseases, he said.
These water struggles have been exacerbated this year by the Covid-19 pandemic. Those without access to water, sanitation, and hygiene have a greater risk of contracting the respiratory virus.
Villagers say they feel stymied. In some cases, local leaders are open to having a discussion about environmental problems, but often they can’t provide a solution. Oil pollution is a complicated and sensitive topic and smaller villages don’t have the resources to act, according to Ahma. Leaders emphasized their lack of capacity, the current Turkish incursion, the shortage of aid coming through the border. There just aren’t enough resources to fix the issues locally.
When the United States announced last year it would withdraw troops from the region, residents felt hopeless, Ahma said. They were simultaneously abandoned after the fight against ISIS and left exposed to the Turkish military offensive. While U.S. tanks still patrol the oil fields — the Trump administration acknowledged that they were protecting the oil reserves — Ahma noted there is nothing being done to fix the pollution.
For Ahma, in order to clean up the pollution, the conflict in the region must first be resolved and the people in the Northeastern area should be included in the political process moving forward, both nationally in Syria and internationally in Geneva.
Agencies must focus on prevention and cleanup, Zwijnenburg said. That means stopping the leaks and safely storing the waste. The region’s water and soil must be monitored, in case of future spills. But finally, it was important to Zwijnenburg that the people be compensated for their losses, in land and in life. The health repercussions could last years, an invisible toll unacknowledged until years pass and the damage makes its mark.
The oil will not last forever, Zwijnenburg said. It will dry up and hopefully something more sustainable will take its place.